Grace Presbyterian Church

A Warm and Welcoming Church

Sermon: What Are We Willing to Do?

Grace Presbyterian Church

February 4, 2018, Epiphany 5B

1 Corinthians 9:16-23

What Are We Willing to Do?

What are we willing to do?

That type of question faces us in many different corners or spheres of our lives. For me these past two weeks, the question has taken the form what are you willing to do to get well?, finally resulting this past week in my doing something I utterly despise doing; “staying home sick.” I hate it. I get so stir crazy. But even though I waited until Thursday to come in to the office even for a little while, that one day almost set me all the way back, or so it seemed that night. Even this morning I’m not sure I have this thing completely out of my system yet. I am, however, a lot better off than I was, and have to admit with some reluctance that I probably made things worse by taking so long to give in and “be sick.”

What are we willing to do?

To a great degree this question sums up not only the particular verses found in today’s reading from 1 Corinthians, the final one we will hear in this stretch. It actually works pretty well, as it turns out, as the final reading for what might be loosely framed as a series of readings for the cycle of Sundays that fall after Epiphany. You might remember, a little less than a month ago, the occasion when the visit of the Magi to the child Jesus was observed? Those traveling star-watchers proved themselves willing to take up a difficult and arduous journey to see the One to whom the star pointed. On the other hand, we are presented the opposite side of that coin in Paul’s argument to the Corinthians here, continuing from chapter 8 and proceeding into chapter 10. For us here the question is not what are we willing to do to see God?; rather, we are presented with this question:

What are we willing to do so that others can see God?

The question is so framed by Dr. Carla Works, a professor at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, DC, and it does reflect remarkably well how Paul describes and defends his own approach to his ministry in Corinth. To Jews, he related as a Jew (though he knew himself not to be bound to the Law); to Gentiles he related as a Gentile (though he knew himself to be bound to his service to God). Rather than take a salary or reward for his ministry, he worked a regular job as a maker of tents to support himself, in order to be able to present himself and relate to other poorer laborers instead of only the well-off. As discussed last week, if one to whom Paul sought to bear witness couldn’t cope with the thought of eating meat lest it had been offered to an idol, Paul wouldn’t eat meat. With typical overstatement Paul claims that though he was “free with respect to all, I have made myself a slave to all, that I might win more of them.” Later it’s stated even more extremely: “I have become all things to all people, that I might save some.” Notice that: some. Even Paul knows that not all will be saved, no matter what his efforts are. But to Paul it was still worth it.

This can become exaggerated and even damaging when heard wrong. Paul does not literally become a slave to all, and he does not literally “become” a Jew (he had already been that) or Gentile or “weak” or “strong”; he does find a way to speak to and relate to each of those with a language and demeanor and perspective that might be winsome to each particular audience. That’s challenging enough to accomplish itself without losing one’s mind.

One mild example of this is found in Acts 17, the speech Paul gives at the Areopagus in Athens to the intellectual who’s who of that city. It’s dramatically different from the sermons recorded elsewhere in Acts or much of anything in Paul’s letters. It starts with an understanding and acknowledgment of the intellectual foundation of his listeners, rather than scorning them as some nasty “elite.” He quotes from their favorite poets. He acknowledges their literature, and in that literature even finds support for his own message. His gospel was not compromised; when it came time to talk about the One raised from the dead Paul absolutely went there, even if half the audience immediately checked out on his speech. And yes, some – by no means all, but some – were won that day.

What are we willing to do so that others may see God?

What, then, does this injunction look like to us?

Some things this congregation already does well. We are welcoming folk, that much is for certain. But is that enough?

We live in the midst of what gets variously called a realignment or a shift or even a new reformation within the larger scope of Protestant Christianity. One of the most pronounced current manifestations of that realignment or shift is the degree to which the institutional church is simply not appreciated or respected or feared or even, frankly, noticed in a way certainly not seen in many decades in this country at least. The church in Europe is frankly even further along in this regard. Where church was once virtually mandatory – for one’s social standing, for one’s circle of friends, for one’s patriotism, for all sorts of side reasons – that no longer holds true. Where even magazine advertisements – not ads run by specific churches, just plain old print ads and radio ads run by the Advertising Council[i] – encouraged you to go to church, nowadays most ads encourage you to be virtually anywhere else on a Sunday morning.

It’s not, however, that religious belief or “spirituality” has gone away. Rather, the institutional church no longer holds the authority it was once believed to hold on what or who God is, or what it means to be “religious” or “spiritual.” Often this is identified as a generational thing, but in fact this increasing trend cuts across generations and has increased in every generation since the 1970s.[ii]

So, then, what do we do? How do we bear witness to those who frankly have no interest in coming anywhere near a church, and will quite firmly defend their own “religousness” in doing so? How do we bear witness to a people who reject our way of doing things, or at least reject what they perceive that to be? How do we show that welcome we’re so good at outside the walls and doors of this church?

What are we willing to do so that others may see God?

What about closer to home? What about this very neighborhood? What would it take to reach out right here? What would that mean for us?

What are we willing to do to reach out in a town, a county, or yes, a neighborhood that doesn’t necessarily look like the one in which we grew up? A town in which in a given year about six thousand women and men come here from nations around the world just to attend the university? A town in which refugees from Syria and Puerto Rico and other parts of the Caribbean, fleeing from war or natural disaster, have arrived and are continuing to arrive? Can we manage to find a way to speak and sing our good news in words and tunes that may not be familiar to us, but will be words and tunes of home (not to mention good news) to some of those newcomers in our community? Can we lay aside some of our comfort to be bearers of gospel to the world outside our window?

What are we willing to do so that others may see God?

For the courage to ask, and answer, that question, not in Corinth but in Gainesville, Thanks be to God. Amen.


Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #300, We Are One in the Spirit; #287, Gracious Spirit, Heed our Pleading; #506, Look Who Gathers at Christ’s Table!; #733, We All Are One in Mission



[i] See Kevin M. Kruse, One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America, p. 133 for an example.

[ii] See statistics from Public Religion Research Institute; also frequently cited in the works of Diana Butler Bass. Also see Robert P. Jones, The End of White Christian America.

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